The wartime heritage of the Kokoda Trail has been hijacked by Australian officials from Environment, Foreign Affairs and Trade.
This is evident in the fact that after 10 years and the expenditure of more than $50 million of taxpayer funds on their ‘Kokoda Initiative’ there is still no Master Plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.
Evidence now suggests the term ‘Kokoda Initiative’ is a misnomer and has been used to give relevance to consultants’ reports; compliant NGOs; and AusAID projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.
The recent departure of the PNG CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority is the last action in a chain of events that led to a complete collapse of the management system put in place by Australian officials from Environment-DFAT from 2008-2012.
Responsibility for the Kokoda Trail should now be transferred from DFAT to DVA – which is already responsible for our WW1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front – and a new Joint Understanding should be developed with PNG to honour our shared wartime history at Kokoda and beyond.
The current ‘Kokoda Initiative’ should be rebadged as the ‘Owen Stanley Initiative’ to reflect their role in assisting PNG to develop a case for a World Heritage listing for the area.
Our Kokoda heritage lay dormant in the jungles of Papua New Guinea for five decades until Paul Keating became the first Prime Minister to visit the site on the 50th anniversary of the campaign.
Apart from a few memorial plaques installed during pilgrimages by veterans over the years there was nothing to commemorate the sacrifice of the campaign which now rivals Gallipoli in our national folklore.
‘On this day through all those years we have repeated the words “Lest we forget” said Keating at Bomana War Cemetery on 25 April 1992.
‘And we have not forgotten.
‘The message has always been – remember their bravery and sacrifice, their willingness to lay down their lives for their country, and for their friends.
‘On the Kokoda Trail it was again the young and inexperienced militia men – this time of the 39th and 53rd battalions – later reinforced with soldiers of the 7th Division, who fought gallantly – and eventually won.
‘When it seemed that Papua New Guinea would fall, when it seemed it would be another Singapore, another Rabaul, these troops gallantly held out and finally drove the enemy back to the sea.
‘These were the heroic days of Australia’s history.’
Unfortunately Keating failed to match his rhetoric with action to ensure our future generations do not forget. No plans to protect the integrity of our shared wartime heritage across the Kokoda Trail were initiated and no interpretive memorials were dedicated.
It took another 10 years before Prime Minister John Howard converted Keating’s words into deeds by commissioning a solemn interpretive memorial at the Isurava Battlesite.
Since then the Kokoda campaign has been largely forgotten.
The rot began in 2006 when gold was discovered under the southern section of the trail. A proposal to mine the area created a backlash that saw the Australian Government rush into a ‘Joint Understanding’ with the PNG Government to develop a case for a World Heritage listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges.
The Joint Understanding created a second gold-rush – this time by government consultants to advise the Department of Environment of the challenges and opportunities in a new horizon across the Owen Stanley Ranges.
While ‘Kokoda’ was recognised as the gateway to their new horizon it presented a dilemma for the ‘envirocrats’ within the Department because of their ideological opposition to commemoration and the fact that wartime heritage is not a consideration for a World Heritage listing. Nevertheless it was recognised that the use of the word ‘Kokoda’ had more marketing appeal than ‘Owen Stanley Ranges’. ‘Kokoda’ was therefore hijacked to give resonance to Aid type projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.
The Kokoda Trail was soon redefined as the ‘Kokoda Corridor’ which then included national parks; Port Moresby’s water supply at Sirinumu Dam in Central Province; a 90 kilometre stretch of road from Kokoda to Popondetta; and two villages on the North Coast of Oro Province. The redefinition would dilute the military historical significance of the Kokoda Trail and provide a smorgasbord of opportunity for envirocrats and consultants in their loop.
Queries regarding the wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign across the trail would be met with a patronising sermon about the ‘bigger picture’. Compliant media spin-doctors would be engaged to promote their propaganda and ward off any criticism.
Gratuitous taxpayer Aid funding would be used as a pacifier for local communities along the trail. How could they complain about new schools and health centres in their villages – even if they didn’t ask for them? Any local complaints about the lack of school supplies and medicine could be easily handled by their media spin-doctors.
Australian officials embedded in PNG Government departments linked to Kokoda would provide a steady flow of intelligence back to Canberra. These emissaries soon learned that their PNG counterparts will sign off on any initiative with an Aid dollar attached to it. Canberra could then claim that their agenda was in line with ‘what PNG wanted’. Others would say ‘Yeah, sure!’ (more…)
The desecration of our military heritage at Owers Corner by DFAT is now complete with the recent installation of electricity poles around the unauthorised memorial graffiti on the site.
Owers Corner, located at the end of the 40 km road from Port Moresby, is the gateway to the Kokoda Trail. The hosting of APEC by the PNG Government next month provided a unique opportunity for the construction of a Kokoda Trail Visitors Centre to honour and interpret the historical significance of the place and to showcase the culture of the Koiari landowners.
It would have been a major attraction for the thousands of APEC delegates visiting PNG and would quickly become the country’s most popular tourism destination. It would have created a sustainable economic future for the Koiari people living on the Sogeri plateau.
But it was not to be because Australian envirocrats embedded in the PNG ‘Kokoda Initiative’ seem to be ideologically opposed to commemorating our wartime heritage. They will argue this is not the case but the facts suggest otherwise.
Australian Government officials from Environment and DFAT have been insitu for 10 years and have burned through more that $60 million in taxpayer funded aid. The management system they put in place for the Kokoda Trail has collapsed to such an extent the PNG Minister for Environment and Conservation had to establish his own ‘Kokoda Initiative Ministerial Committee’ to try and arrest the decline. Unfortunately he seemed to have been poorly advised by the Australian’s embedded in his Department and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had to then call for a review to try and stop the rot. (more…)
Not a single management protocol was put in place by the Australian CEO during his three year tenure. There was no database; no campsite booking system; no trek itinerary management system; no campsite development program; no trail maintenance plan; no effective ranger system; or any development programs to assist local villagers in value-adding to the emerging industry.
The recent departure of the PNG CEO from the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) brings an end to a sorry saga of Australian mismanagement along the Kokoda Trail.
Prior to the arrival of Australian officials in 2008 the emerging Kokoda trekking industry was managed by Warren Bartlett, a former Kiap on a PNG salary of $12,500. During his tenure trekker numbers grew from 365 in 2002 to 5621 in 2008 – a massive increase of 1,440%. Bartlett had no staff but was assisted by a part-time local secretary.
Under a ‘Joint’ Understanding signed by the Australian and PNG Governments in 2008 Bartlett was replaced by an Australian CEO on an eye-watering six-figure salary by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA). He was provided with a 10-fold increase in staff numbers and a multi-million dollar budget.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), which has responsibility for our WW1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front in Europe, was not included in the ‘Joint’ Understanding apart from the allocation of $1 million for unspecified purposes. There is no evidence of any of this money being allocated to the development of a Master Plan to protect and interpret our military heritage along the trail.
It is also remains unclear why DVA are responsible for our WW1 military heritage at Gallipoli and Environment/DFAT are responsible for our WW11 heritage at Kokoda.
After a decade insitu by DEWHA the results speak for themselves. Despite a conga-line of Australian environmental consultants and more than $60 million of taxpayers funds trekker numbers declined by 36% from 5621 in 2008 to 3597 in 2012. (more…)
School holidays offer great opportunities for Australian ‘blackbirders’ operating on the Kokoda Trail.
Blackbirding was a form of slavery which saw Papua New Guineans coerced into working as cheap labour on Queensland sugar plantations in the late 19th Century before it was outlawed.
However the practice has mutated into various forms since then and now involves shady operators who have cashed in on the Kokoda trekking industry over the past decade. Papua New Guinea is a governance free zone for blackbirders who are not subject to the same scrutiny they would receive in Australia.
The current dysfunction and debasement of the Kokoda Trail management authority provides them with free rein to promote themselves as legitimate. They are akin to a malarial parasite running through a quinine free bloodstream. There are no limits to the extent they can exploit local Papua New Guinean guides, carriers and villagers who live in a subsistence economy and are desperate for work.
They are slick and hard to detect. They have established their own ‘Kokoda Tour Operators Association’ to disguise their exploitation and provide a form of self-legitimacy. Their websites boast of emotive ‘passion for our diggers’ amid claims to be ‘historians – explorers – adventurers’ even through there is no prior record of their commitment to these ideals through previous active service or support to veterans’ organizations.
It seems more than coincidence that their faux passion happened to coincide with the opportunity to make a dollar out of it. (more…)
Trekking Kokoda will never be the same without the presence of distinguished elder, Faole Bokoi, to welcome trekkers as they enter Menari village.
Faole was a former luluai (clan leader), village constable and mail carrier under Australian colonial rule. It is unlikely that he was a wartime carrier due to his estimated age. The Australian New Guinea Army Unit recruited boys over the age of 16 years as carriers. Faole would therefore have been 98 years old at the time of his passing. The average life span for PNG males is currently 62 years. It would have meant that Faole would have been 73 years of age when I first met him 25 years ago. I would have estimated his age to be 50-55 years at that time.
This is not meant to detract from the value of his service to his people as the task of carrying mailbags from Owers Corner to the changeover point on the crest between Crossing 1 and Templeton’s Crossing would have been arduous and dangerous. After meeting his fellow Orokaiva mail carriers from Kokoda there would be an exchange of mailbags and Faole would return to Owers Corner.
Faole was a wonderful caring man and a respected elder in Menari.
We are proud of the fact that we were able to contribute to his welfare through our trekkers donating approximately $2,000 each year for the opportunity to be photographed with him. We also paid for an operation on the feet of his grand-daughter, Nancy who was a baby at the time. I recently met Nancy at Owers Corner and she is now a normal healthy teenager as a result of the operation. (more…)
Newspaper reports of a British ‘Reality TV star‘ and his American girlfriend being ambushed, tortured, tormented and raped by ‘cannibals’ on the Kokoda Trail went viral last month. After escaping from their captors the near-naked couple apparently trekked in bare feet for 15 kilometres from Templeton’s Crossing to Alola from where they were evacuated.
The story generated the most negative publicity PNG has experienced in decades. International tourism will take a big hit as a result.
Hopefully it will precipitate a wake-up call amongst government agencies responsible for the Kokoda trekking industry because this couple should never have been issued with a permit to trek without a PNG guide or any emergency equipment. Time will tell.
PNG could become the wartime tourism capital of the Pacific – if they get the model right! It’s an industry waiting to happen. (more…)